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Biden carries Trump's hard line toward Beijing to coming summits

As world leaders prepare to gather within days for major meetings in Rome and Scotland, the administration’s China strategy is being put to the test.
China's then-Vice President Xi Jinping accompanies then-Vice President Joe Biden to view an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing on Aug. 18, 2011.
Aiding President Joe Biden’s effort is an emerging consensus within the U.S. about China’s growing threat.Lintao Zhang / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As a candidate, President Joe Biden cast himself as an anti-Donald Trump whose approach to foreign challenges would look nothing like that of the president he sought to replace. But since Biden became president, his China stances have, more often than not, echoed his predecessor’s — surprising even some China hawks.

Yet the Biden administration has also maintained that stiff competition should not and need not preclude narrow cooperation between the countries in a handful of areas of common interest, like climate change.

Now, as world leaders prepare to gather within days for the G20 summit in Rome and the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland — gatherings that Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to skip — their approach is being put to the test.

The challenge is a familiar one for Biden. For eight years as vice president, he was a key emissary to China in an Obama administration push to stand up to Beijing that never fully took shape.

Asian allies feared that Biden might return to policies pursued during the Obama administration and adopt a more conciliatory tone toward China while cutting defense spending, but they have been reassured by Washington’s approach, said Michael Green, the senior vice president for Asia of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, who helped shape Asia policy in George W. Bush’s administration.

Aiding Biden’s effort is an emerging consensus within the U.S. about China’s growing threat.

“Xi Jinping has done what no one else in the world can accomplish: He’s brought Republicans and Democrats together,” said Anja Manuel, a former State Department official and China scholar who directs the Aspen Strategy Group. “For any administration, there isn’t that much room to maneuver. The country has turned hawkish on China.”

In Biden’s first year in office, his approach to China has been grounded in the notion that an increasingly aggressive Beijing has underestimated U.S. resolve. Only once China’s leader understood that Biden meant business, White House officials have argued, could any meaningful progress occur.

The tough line has drawn some of the only comparisons between Biden and Trump, whose individual policies toward China his successor has largely preserved, most strikingly about trade.

“You hear people saying, ‘Biden wants to start a new cold war with China,’” Biden said Thursday in a televised town hall. “I don’t want a cold war with China. I want China to understand that we are not going to step back and change any of our views.”

Biden’s top Asia adviser, Kurt Campbell, put it bluntly in March when he said the period of “engagement” with China was over and “competition” would now define relations between Washington and Beijing.

Outside observers agree. “There’s been quite a bit of continuity, and certainly more than China expected,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The White House has argued that the U.S. has strengthened its hand in its delicate relationship with China, both by working at home to improve U.S. competitiveness and by rallying a wide array of allies. That’s in stark contrast to the approach taken by Trump, who often bashed America’s longtime partners in Asia and questioned Washington’s defense commitments.

A senior Biden administration official said that what’s often perceived as Biden’s continuing the Trump policy is merely the U.S.’s standing up for its interests and holding China to account.

“If you want to say that’s similar to what the prior administration did, in some respects that’s fair,” the senior official said. “But the key difference is our emphasis on allies and partners so that we are not doing this alone.”

During Biden’s campaign, and now his presidency, the prospect that China could surpass the U.S. as an economic superpower has been at the heart of his arguments for massive infrastructure and social welfare plans. As a candidate, Biden argued that Trump’s tough talk on China wasn’t supported by his actions.

“What I’d make China do is play by the international rules, not like he has done. He has caused the deficit in China to go up, not down,” Biden said in the final presidential debate. “We need to be having the rest of our friends with us saying to China: ‘These are the rules. You play by them or you’re going to pay the price for not playing by them, economically.’ That’s the way I will run it.”

The high stakes have been laid bare by a series of alarming apparent escalations in military tensions over the last several months.

China’s military has carried out an unprecedented number of flights by fighter and bomber jets near Taiwanese airspace, and it was reported to have tested a hypersonic missile that flew around the globe. The U.S. created a defense pact with Australia and the U.K. to counter China, and it has carried out its own shows of military force in the region.

The rough diplomatic turn was thrust into public view in March when U.S. and Chinese officials sat down for their first high-level meetings in Alaska, only for the summit to erupt into angry allegations and airing of grievances.

Since then, China has insisted that the Biden administration is poisoning the well for any prospects for cooperation by challenging Beijing so directly on security, human rights and economic issues. Yet the Biden administration has insisted that China would ultimately be forced to compartmentalize.

On trade and economic policy, the Biden administration has been in a holding pattern, and officials have yet to outline how the administration intends to tackle a litany of trade disputes with China.

The Biden administration has chosen to continue to uphold the “phase one” trade deal the Trump administration negotiated, even though officials say China has failed to live up to a number of its commitments.

But nine months in, Biden is maintaining Trump’s tariffs and other punitive measures he imposed on China. Biden’s deputies have not said under what conditions they would lift the tariffs or whether the administration plans to double down on restrictions over intellectual property theft or forced technology transfers.

For U.S. allies in Europe and Asia — who have extensive trade ties with Beijing — there is little appetite for tariffs or “decoupling” from China’s economy.

“Our allies in general are pursuing new trade agreements with China,” said David Dollar, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who worked on China issues at the Treasury Department in the Obama administration. “And the U.S. is trying to rally countries to decouple from China and isolate it. I don’t think they're getting much traction.”

National security hawks in Congress have urged Biden to act to safeguard U.S. technology from what they say are China’s predatory trade practices by taking a tougher approach to export controls and restricting U.S. investment in Chinese companies linked to Beijing’s military.

But tech companies and free trade advocates want an easing of the trade war, arguing that the tariffs are a drag on the U.S. company that could hamper innovation in the long run. Some progressives say a Cold War mentality with China could jeopardize any potential breakthrough in talks on fighting climate change, as cooperation from Beijing will be crucial to make any headway in cutting fossil fuel emissions.

The Obama administration, like Biden’s, sought to narrowly pursue climate cooperation with China despite their many other disagreements, said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University, who oversaw climate diplomacy with China in the Obama White House. The task is tougher for Biden given how intertwined climate change has become with other economic issues, she said.

“I think it’s impossible to deal with climate from the other priorities in the U.S.-China relationship,” she said. “But it’s crucial that the two countries maintain a channel of dialogue on this issue, and that ought to be possible no matter how contentious the relationships get.”

Senior Biden administration officials say they believe that since the Alaska summit in the spring, the Chinese government has started to understand their stance. Biden is set to meet virtually with Xi this year for their first one-on-one summit since Biden took office.

“We feel like we're in a much, much stronger position now than we were when we took office to take on the challenge,” a senior Biden official said. “It's clear that we're not going to change their specific behavior on certain stuff, so we are focusing on influencing the architecture around them in the international community.”